Monday, June 6, 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of Prep, the 2005 novel that largely appealed to both teenage and adult readers. I loved Prep, one of the first boarding school books I'd read that actually covered the four years from freshman to senior year in one book. Others, like Jon van de Ruit's Spud, E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, Robyn Schneider's Extraordinary Means, and Stephenie Perkins's Isla and the Happily Ever After take place over just one year of boarding school rather than all four. 

Sittenfeld's Eligible is a much different book from Prep, and is, as the cover suggests, "a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice" and presents a twenty-first century version of the Bennet family, one that circles around cross fit and yoga, social media and reality TV. Liz Bennet is a magazine writer in her late thirties living in New York and she has just returned home after her father's surgery to help her family with his care. Her older sister Jane, a yoga instructor, goes home with Liz to Cincinnati, a city much slower and quieter than the New York that they've called home for the last few years. The dwindling family inheritance previously supported their interests: "Jane and Liz had always held jobs, but even for them, a certain awareness of the safety net below had allowed the prioritizing of their personal interests over remuneration" (11). Meanwhile, middle sister Mary is taking her third Masters degree online, while younger sisters Lydia and Kitty have joined the cross fit culture. 

In this version of the classic story, Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy are doctors - Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Bingley is fresh off of a stint on Eligible, a Bachelor-like reality show on which he did not find love, and he is no less eligible than he was when he was on the show. 

Eligible is a fantastic retelling of Pride and Prejudice; it becomes much more than that by stridently commenting on twenty-first century dating culture and values. It's possible that Sittenfeld mined books such as Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Woman and the Rise of an Independent Nation and Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own for Liz and Jane's experiences. At one point, Liz insists that she doesn't want children. She tells Darcy,
If you want, I'll give you possible ways to respond and you can choose the one you like best. A) Oh, Liz, you'll change your mind - you just haven't met the right person... B) But who will look after you when you're old?... C) Yeah, I bet you don't want children, you selfish East Coast narcissist...D) Wow, you childhood must have sucked. Or...E) You just have no idea how rich and wonderful parenthood can be. In fact, you haven't really live until you've wrestled a shrieking four-year-old to the ground at Target. Now, keep in mind, Fitzwilliam Darcy, that you can choose all of the above. (262)
Eligible is an incredibly humorous novel, and thoroughly re-invents the source material for a twenty-first century context. 

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